Hair So Problematic (Working While Black)

True stories of racist hair discrimination

Hello friends,

Hair is a big issue for Black women, and it’s one of the aspects of our culture that’s least understood. We’re tired of feeling like it’s either a curiosity or a problem, especially in a work setting. I hope some of the experiences I share here will help you understand why.

The first time I realized my natural hair could be a problem for others was when I was attending a Catholic primary school in Trinidad. I was 8, I believe, and Sister R, the nun in charge, called my parents in to ask them to “do something about my hair”. I’m not sure what exactly she expected them to do with my exuberant 70s fro, but she didn’t get the response she was expecting.

Despite the very real possibility (in my young mind) that she could use her hotline to the deity to get us all into trouble, my parents didn’t cooperate at all. As I recall, my dad’s view was that as long as my hair was clean and neat there was nothing to talk about. It’s the only time I’d seen the Sister back down. I never heard another word about my hair for the rest of my time at that school.

“Impossible” Hair

A few years later, we moved to Barbados. I’ve talked before about the colorism that pervades Barbadian society, so it’s no surprise that almost everyone around me wanted to do something about their hair. Decades later, I still recall comments about the “impossibility” of dealing with natural hair and the desirability of straightened hair.

Aside from the hot iron and chemical straighteners, in the 80s Black women also had the option of the Jheri Curl. This was an oily curly perm which became the butt of many standup comics’ jokes.

Or you could braid your hair in the style coopted by Bo Derek in 10. (I say coopted because women of African ancestry have been styling their hair in elaborate braided patterns for centuries.) The irony, of course, was that what was considered cute on a white woman was considered unprofessional in a Black one.

I wore braids a lot in the mid to late 80s, but as I later discovered, what was fine for a student was unacceptable in many workplaces. When I was very young, I remember being fascinated by my aunties’ weekend hot ironing ritual to get their hair ready for the work week. As an adult, I learned why they did it.

“Unprofessional” Hair

In one of my job interviews, I was told that if I got the job, I’d have to straighten my hair, because braids weren’t allowed. That happened to many women, so it’s no surprise that most of them caved and switched to a more “acceptable” hairstyle.

This still happens around the world, where people of the global majority have their hairstyles policed by both white people and BIPOC who are operating from the same playbook.

While hair discrimination (which is racism, let’s be clear) mostly affects women, Black men aren’t exempt from the problem. In the last year alone we’ve seen Black children excluded from school because of their hair and a Black football player having his locs cut off. In fact, you don’t have to look very hard to find dozens of similar stories.

It’s so bad that people are having to pass legislation like the CROWN Act to stop anti-Black hair discrimination at work.

Let’s be clear: the way I wear my hair doesn’t affect my ability to do my job. As far as I’m concerned, if my hair is clean and in an appropriate style for my ethnicity, it’s nobody’s business.

“Unfeminine” Hair

Of course, the bias against natural hair isn’t just in the workplace; it’s out in society. When I was at university and in the early days of my working life, it was clear that white European hair norms were what most guys preferred. When I switched to short natural hair, an ex referred to it dismissively as “man head”. And many Black women will attest to the fact that their partners often favor long straight hair that mimics European hair norms.

With that kind of attitude, it’s hard to learn to love your own hair, and your own self. Everything about society tells you that what you are is not right — and not close enough to white.

Accepting My Natural Hair

In the past, it always seemed that my preference for natural hair was a bit shameful. Though I’ve worn short natural hair regularly over the years, and exclusively in the last seven or so, it’s taken me decades to be unapologetic about it. I think all women should have the right to choose their hairstyle, and outlawing Black hairstyles at work or school is just plain wrong.

If you DO wear your hair natural, or in an elaborate style, Black women face another problem — the number of white people who want to stick their hands in your hair and feel it for themselves. White people, I beg you, resist the temptation. You are awakening centuries of generational trauma caused by not having agency over our own bodies, by being seen as less than people, by being curiosities at best. Keep your hands out of my hair: it is not your plaything.

Also, accept that many of us like to do things with our hair. (I’m the exception, as I truly can’t be bothered.) But when you see a Black woman who has a different hairstyle from the day before, it’s not an invitation to quiz her about whether it’s hers (if I bought it, I own it, as one friend says blithely), or how the style was achieved. Say “I love your new hairstyle”, and move on. Trust me, we do not want to spend 15 minutes giving you a Black hair tutorial at work — if you’re that curious, Google it.

Minoritized people are tired of our hair being either a problem or a curiosity for white employers and white society. Flip the script — if a white woman went to a Black majority country and couldn’t get certain jobs because of her natural hair, and had to somehow make it into something that resembled Black natural hair, we’d think it was ridiculous, wouldn’t we? That’s because it is.

Time for racist hair discrimination to end.

Thanks for reading this article. I look forward to your feedback.

© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2020. All Rights Reserved.

Cover photo courtesy of Canva.

I am an anti-racism writer, a professional B2B writer and blogger, and co-host of The Introvert Sisters podcast. If you value my perspective, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription.

Join the conversation

or to participate.